How to reduce the pressures at work

Effective strategies can help accounting and finance professionals handle increasing workloads and keep stress to a minimum.
By Sabine Vollmer and Ken Tysiac

How to reduce the pressures at work
Photo by jiradelta/iStock

You know the feeling: You're working longer and harder—like a tax accountant whose busy season never ends. But at the close of the day, tasks are left undone because you didn't get to them or because you're waiting for somebody else to finish his or her part in the workflow.

Accountants, auditors, and finance executives may feel this way for several good reasons. New standards and regulations, technological advances, and expanded duties are changing the profession and adding complexity and challenges. But even though CPAs may be increasingly busy, there are ways for them to avoid being swamped.

Amy West, CPA, CGMA, is the CFO of not-for-profit AHRC NYC, which provides critical services to people with developmental disabilities and their families in New York City. In a business environment where the CFO's role is expanding, West oversees traditional finance, insurance, entitlements, contract negotiations, and procurement. She also is head of AHRC NYC's real property department. This includes responsibility for 170 facilities throughout the five boroughs of New York City. AHRC NYC owns about 100 of the facilities, including the organization's headquarters. That means West also serves as a landlord. She negotiates leases, manages commercial tenants, and performs other duties to ensure the not-for-profit manages its space effectively. This is a huge responsibility on top of her numerous other duties, but being organized and planning carefully help her stay on top of her tasks.

"The more you plan, I think, the better you are equipped to deal with the unexpected," she said. "Planning helps you deal with the unknown."

Effective and productive professionals find ways to tackle the challenges posed in a business environment that seems increasingly busy. Meanwhile, industrial-organizational psychologists and leadership coaches offer strategies for how to be more productive and less stressed.

WHY BUSY SEASON SEEMS TO HAVE NO END

Researchers believe the trove of information assembled by humans doubled about every 25 years at the end of World War II. Today, thanks to technology, it doubles about every 13 months, and the sharing and digitization of information continues to increase the pace.

"This pace of change is the problem," said Alan Watkins, a physician and neuroscientist who is CEO of Complete Coherence, a leadership consultancy near London. To get a grasp on the changes, he said, "we need to work at a higher level of sophistication."

Sophisticated tools can make the job easier, but they can also become a problem. Constant connectedness to digital devices hasn't led to higher productivity, according to Scott Eblin, a former executive turned leadership coach and author of Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative. U.S. labor productivity growth slowed in the mid-2000s and in the past five years has been the lowest on record, research by the Federal Reserve suggests.

The average working professional receives about 200 email messages per day, each often arriving with a ding that conveys more urgency than most messages deserve. Add to that instant messages, text messages, phone calls, meetings, and inquiries from colleagues sticking their heads through the open door. Workers are interrupted on average every three minutes. Research shows it takes about 20 minutes to refocus, Eblin said.

"We can compensate for interruptions by working faster, but that comes at a price," said Erin Eatough, an industrial-organizational psychologist and assistant psychology professor at the City University of New York's Baruch College. "We're feeling like we're putting in more effort during the day, which I think is what's leading to a lot of these feelings of being overwhelmed but still not feeling like we're getting more done than maybe we have in the past."

HOW TO IMPROVE PRODUCTIVITY

West said three main distractions threaten to derail her on the job, but she has strategies for dealing with each one:

  • Email. West sets aside time three times per day—first thing in the morning, around noon, and around 4 p.m.—to review email messages. This prevents her from feeling distracted by each message as it arrives in her inbox.
  • Meetings. West advocates holding meetings only when they are truly necessary. She tries to keep Mondays and Fridays meeting-free and limits meetings to 30 minutes whenever possible.
  • Open-door policy. West wants to always be approachable and accessible, but there are times when she closes her office door to avoid interruptions that are not urgent. She limits interruptions by scheduling time regularly to visit with her direct reports.

West also carves out time for herself three times a week to work from home early in the morning, starting about 3 or 4 a.m. and ending around 7. "That is my prime time," she said. "That's when I get the most work done. There are no distractions."

Email is the biggest productivity challenge for Danielle Supkis Cheek, CPA, owner of D. Supkis Cheek PLLC in Houston. Her firm provides various services, including financial statement audits, for small and medium-size business clients. That focus on client services means she gets a lot of high-priority work that needs to be completed on a short timeline. And much of her communication goes through email.

"Since we have a practice where we do a lot of hand-holding with our clients and we pride ourselves on being there for them, their emergency is sometimes our emergency," Supkis Cheek said.

Using technology in the way that makes her comfortable has helped her manage the email load. She checks email regularly, but she has turned off the notification on her screen that would inform her every time a new message arrives in her inbox. Also, she carries a small Surface Pro 4 tablet in her purse everywhere she goes. If she arrives 15 minutes early for an appointment, she whips out her tablet and gets work done.

It's essential that the device's operating system begins working immediately when she awakens it from hibernate mode. Her office is paperless, and she can gain access to her office's systems through the cloud, so she can work anywhere as long as she has an internet connection.

"Having a computer in my purse at all times is probably one of the best productivity tools I've ever seen," she said.

She said it's important to confirm how quickly a client needs a particular service performed. Communicating with clients to set expectations is a big part of Supkis Cheek's personal management plan.

In one recent case, she spoke with a client on a Thursday about a task that seemed so urgent that she thought he probably wanted the completed work returned to him by the end of the next day. When she asked him for a time frame, though, he said it would be fine for her to turn in the work by the end of the following week. She had seven more days to complete the project than she had anticipated.

WHAT INDIVIDUALS CAN DO

Technology is a blessing and a curse. Those interruptions that occur on average every three minutes is one of the problems technology has created, according to Eblin. To regain a measure of control, Eblin and Eatough suggest these strategies:

  • Batch email messages. Read and respond to batches of messages three or four times a day. Let people know when you usually check your email—for example, note in your signature block, "I'm checking email at 9 a.m., noon, and 4 p.m."
  • Prioritize tasks for each day. Know when you do your best work, and try to organize your day according to your operating rhythm. Break large, unwieldy tasks into actionable subtasks that can be accomplished as part of a daily to-do list. To eliminate distractions, focus on the 20% of tasks that should occupy 80% of your time, because these tasks are the most productive. By color-coding emails, making to-do lists in Excel, writing tasks on sticky notes, or whatever your system is, you can see at a glance what you're spending your time on each week.
  • Set boundaries. Put your mobile phone on airplane mode or turn it off, and schedule out-of-office responses to email messages when you need a block of uninterrupted time. Establish phone-free times and places at home, and stick to the rules. When you're working from home, designate a specific area for work. Unplug during vacations.
  • Take breaks. Stretch and walk around the office once or twice an hour. In a pinch, take three deep breaths from the abdomen to relieve tension.
  • Remember what's going right. Even on the worst day, something goes right. Remembering that shifts your perspective.

WHAT ORGANIZATIONS CAN DO

The increasingly collaborative nature of work can cause a tremendous amount of stress when a workflow that involves a string of people breaks down or bottlenecks cause delays. Most often, broken, out-of-date, or competing processes are to blame rather than people, said Joan Pastor, a licensed industrial-organizational psychologist, author, and executive coach. To streamline processes and increase productivity, organizations can:

  • Prioritize. Executive management should carefully assess staffing and prioritize functions that need more resources than others. Budget priorities should align with an organization's vision and strategy and may follow employee suggestions.
  • Analyze. To streamline processes, an organization should lay out and analyze each chain of tasks and identify breakdowns and bottlenecks by task and person without judgment.
  • Train. Workflow process training can prevent misunderstandings and ensure deadlines are met with a minimum of stress. Top management should first devise the processes. Then employees should be trained to appropriately address holdups, prevent mistakes, and keep the workflow going without major interruptions. The more top management is considered capable of managing, resolving, and removing obstacles, the more employees will listen.
  • Monitor. Protocols that establish lines of appropriate workflow promote behavior that can be measured. How well employees adhere to the protocols can be made part of performance management.
  • Use tools. Collaboration tools in the cloud can be helpful, including Dropbox and Google Drive and to-do list trackers such as OmniFocus (for Apple) or Asana (for Apple, Google Calendar, or Outlook).

About the authors

Sabine Vollmer (Sabine.Vollmer@aicpa-cima.com) is a JofA senior editor. Ken Tysiac (Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com) is a JofA editorial director.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, senior editor, at Sabine.Vollmer@aicpa-cima.com or 919-402-2304.


AICPA resources

Articles

Publications

  • Change Management for Finance and Accounting Professionals (#PCG1302P, paperback; #PCG1302E, ebook)
  • The Overachiever's Guide to Getting Unstuck: Replan, Reprioritize, Reaffirm (#PGN1301P, paperback; #PGN1301E, ebook)

CPE self-study

  • Plug Your Profit Leaks: Exploring Ideas to Significantly Save Time and Money (#164031, online access; #GT-PYPL, group training)
  • Excel for Accounting Professionals Webcast Series (#VCL2EXAP1703, audio webcast)

For more information or to make a purchase, go to aicpastore.com or call the Institute at 888-777-7077.

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